Stupidity, chaos, cruelty, pain. Reality, a failure worse than any nightmare. There was no fixing it. Nothing to be done, except… escape.
These opening words of Steve Barnett’s Mindwarp sit ominously on top of footage of a nuclear explosion. Immediately, they create an internalized space for viewership, triggering more in the intellect than in your emotions. There is no longer a knee-jerk response to the ‘fight or flight’ feeling one would associate with the end of the world – if it were to really, really happen – because by now, apocalypse films are, frankly, blasé. We’ve become strangely accustomed to our own demise, whether this is provided by Dr. Strangelove, Mad Max, or George A. Romero. Part of it, I think, is that on a level of absolute logic, the post-apocalypse genre makes no sense. If there is a true End to All Things, there would be no narrative, because there would be no humans, and no human experience. The contradiction was astutely realized by Stanley Kubrick, as human experience literally ends to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”. The next notch down, and probably a better explanation of the genre, is that these texts exist as an apocalypse of the known, giving way to a new, unknown, reality. An old world has ended, and a new one begins – with its own logic and spirit, very naturally at odds with the humans that led us there with the stupidity of their actions. So, the human condition is in conflict with external forces, and has to crawl itself back to the top of the shit heap.
So Mindwarp the film begins with the end of the world and ends with a new beginning. It exists solely within that liminal space between the here and after – but a fairly violent and gory transitional space – both within the mind of its protagonist and in the “physical” “reality” it inhabits. Virtual reality is a primary component of this post-apocalypse. Our main character, Lucy, is introduced by directly addressing a soothing infomercial, and the film’s camera, with a firm, “Bullshit.” She is this internal conflict, manifest. Along with Lucy, we are then transported immediately to the mysterious System Operator, an overseer of-sorts for the manufactured, virtual reality used by the movie’s post-apocalyptic inhabitants.
But Judy, you don’t ever know what you’re fighting against.
We get the foundation of Mindwarp’s narrative from this interchange between Judy and the System Operator. She is unsatisfied with the virtual falsehoods presented to her in this faked reality to occupy her time – there is an intangible something that leaves her unsatisfied. Let’s call it the Human Condition. When she unplugs from the System (Infinisynth – get it?), Lucy does some push ups and tries speaking to her mother, with whom she shares a room, which doesn’t work out so well. Her mother is addicted to her dream state, but Lucy dreams of the outside. The great irony is that Lucy is also addicted to her own state of mind – of escape – she just isn’t aware of it yet.
So it should also be said that apocalypse films, in their exploration of humans coping with the unknown, are really about internalized spaces manifesting externally – often in a threatening posture. It is fairly obvious after The Walking Dead’s weekly bloody soap opera and mass appeal that the zombies in its origin text, Night of the Living Dead, are more about the people encountering the enigma of these undead, and the people coping with other people, as it is about ‘zombies’. At this point in Mindwarp, Lucy interfaces again with Infinisynth (the “plug” to virtual reality is the same as The Matrix – a physical interface in the back of the neck – but apparently, virtual reality was in VGA in the ’90’s) and injects herself into her mother’s dreams. Lucy kills her mom in her virtual reality. But when Lucy wakes up, her mother is dead. It’s all a dream, the System Operator said. You can play God, he said. After this healthy dose of accidental matricide, men in black come into Lucy’s room, bag her, and burn her Infinisynth I.D. She has now been cast out of Paradise, er, I mean, Inworld.
She wakes up on the Earth’s scorched and arid surface, what Inworld was meant to protect her from – a land ravaged by nuclear waste, Outworld. Everything is suspect. There are sinkholes leading to underground caverns full of cannibalistic mutated humans: Crawlers. Other Inworlders, like herself, that are also expelled are left curiously (for cannibals, anyway) crucified on the surface of the planet and bake under particularly harsh nuclear elements. During an initial bout with some nasty Crawlers, the legendary Bruce Campbell comes to save Judy’s day. After an expository montage of them getting to know each other, and fall in love, and establish a home life, they are sieged by Crawlers and Lucy is captured, like Persephone – taken down into the bowels of Hell and the Crawlers’ underground lair; Bruce Campbell’s character Stover dives in like Hermes to save her.
Mindwarp was the first of only three productions by Fangoria Films – the gore and horror magazine’s film production arm – and from what I’ve seen, the clear prestige project for the experiment. Mindwarp is lent a certain cult clout and even grace by the appearance of Bruce and His Chin, as well as the Phantasm himself, Angus Scrimm, in a dual role that is also a spoiler. Both give, unsurprisingly, admirable performances, even under narrative duress. The only time I’ve seen Bruce clearly distressed was in the pre-Samwise Gamgee rape of Die Hard: Icebreaker. There is class especially to Scrimm’s role as the ‘Seer’, a religious leader of an underground community of Crawlers. Himself, a ‘fallen angel’, as it were, from the heaven of Inworld, has become its Lucifer in the bowels of the Crawlers’ underground tunnel system, establishing an unholy religious system that keeps the cannibals placated, its community structured, and himself off the dinner menu. There’s an unsaid Fatherly element to Scrimm’s Seer that is always left unsaid even in moments of sexual nuance between Lucy and himself.
Lucy: I’ve never seen a real book before.
Stover: This is the Bible.
Lucy: I’ve heard of it. But who needs Bibles in Heaven?
Stover: Then what do you believe in? Have you no hope in eternity?
Lucy: If you want eternity, Infinisynth can give it to you. It’s just a sensation. If you want to shake the hand of God, you do it. It’s a program.
So, as Stover navigates the tunnel system, fighting off cannibals in gory fashion to save Lucy, Lucy starts to at least appreciate the Seer’s condition, even if they don’t see eye-to-eye on the religious methodology of grinding people into bloody pools and drinking their blood from hollowed-out skulls. Which is to say, it is a rather magnificent gore film, but its gore is always kept at arm’s length. It is just on the other side of a cartoon, allowing for some breathing room; and actually, some meditation on the surprisingly accomplished narrative themes. This is needed since the majority of the film wallows in these depraved depths, bathed in red and augmented by some truly great makeup work, and some definite emphasis on the color red. You do feel like you’re there too long, and you do feel like you are in Hell.
The film’s conclusion inverts our appreciation of many of our main characters – but what matters is, the Seer gets his appropriate due, after some narrative invention, by falling down the bloody, knife-covered slide, becoming ground meat for his congregation. Lucy escapes, and ends up back at Inworld, to take her Father’s place at the console of illusion for her fellow Dreamers. The whole experience of Mindwarp is an esoteric ritual, combined with the experiential philosophy of the (later, it should be said) The Matrix, but bathed in blood. For me, the gore is simply window dressing. Mindwarp is a straight-to-’90’s-video scholcker on the mind’s post-apocalypse, with an unbelievable fidelity to myth and initiation rituals, hiding beneath poor line readings and gory makeup effects. It’s everything you sign up for when exploring the netherworld of bad movies – because deep beneath the surface, there is so much more than first appears.